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New to agile? What does the ScrumMaster do anyway?

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New to agile? What does the ScrumMaster do anyway?

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I often have people ask me what a ScrumMaster does.  Interestingly, today it came up on a mailing list I read on a regular basis.  So, naturally that means it is time for a blog entry to talk about it!

I am a big believer in simplifying things, so let’s start with an overly simplistic definition for what the ScrumMaster does:

“A ScrumMaster removes impediments for the team”

It seems many people believe this to be the only thing a ScrumMaster does.  Maybe it was the way they were taught.  Maybe they misinterpreted something.  This is definitely not all a ScrumMaster does.  If it were, then a ScrumMaster could work with many teams at once.  While some do in fact work with multiple teams I agree with whoever said “A good ScrumMaster can work with multiple teams at once, a GREAT ScrumMaster will only work with one.”  In other words you can be successful working with more than one team as a ScrumMaster, but it won’t be possible for you or the team to reach greatness!

This definition is extraordinarily and unnecessarily narrow.  A great ScrumMaster can and should do so much more!  Let’s expand the definition a bit:

A ScrumMaster is a servant leader helping the team be accountable to themselves for the commitments they make

Hmm, a servant leader?  Accountability?  Commitments?  Uh oh, Houston, we have a problem!  Let’s take this one piece at a time:

is a servant leader - According to Wikipedia, in order to be a servant leader, you need to have to following qualities: listening, commitment to growth, foresight, and the ability to build community.  In addition there are several common characteristics of servant leaders including collaboration, trust, empathy, and the ethical use of power.  Notice in hear there is NO mention of management.  Let’s be very clear about one thing: leadership is NOT the same as management (see an earlier blog post on this topic)!  If the ScrumMaster doesn’t manage the team who does?  This is one of the beauties and difficulties of Scrum – the team is self-managing.  This leads us right into point 2…

helping the team be accountable to themselves – A team that is accountable to themselves implies they are managing themselves.  This is very important for agile teams in general.  Not having the ability to hold each other accountable causes friction.  Accountability is not micro-management.  It is the opposite.  It is the ability to EXPECT someone to do their work and if they don’t deliver, to hold them accountable and work together if necessary to improve the situation.  In most situations someone is given a task and then a task master of some sort continues to check progress.  Accountability means giving someone a task and expecting it to be completed unless an issue is raised.  Not doing this implies a person is not a team player which leads to lots of other problems.  Since we are talking about the ScrumMaster here let’s bring this full circle and focus on the word at the front of this piece – HELPING.  The ScrumMaster doesn’t do it, they help the team do it themselves.  HUGE DIFFERENCE!

for the commitments they make - Notice the ScrumMaster is not responsible for helping the team meet external commitments.  They are responsible for helping the team meet the commitments the team themselves made.  This may involve the team working as a cross-functional unit (breaking down silos).  It may involve significant collaboration among groups.  It may (and likely does) involve removing impediments (so this is where that came from!).  It may involve holding the team accountable to their commitment to the Scrum framework!  In the latter case this can often involve coaching the team in how Scrum works.  Finally, this may involve holding the team accountable to creating the highest value product possible (high value combined with high quality combined with high productivity).

How do you do all of this?  Well a good starting point is a checklist of things the ScrumMaster can look at and work on.  Michael James from Danube has an excellent ScrumMaster Checklist available for download.  I suggest downloading it and seeing how you are doing.  If you are a ScrumMaster are you up for the challenge of becoming a great one?

Now that I’ve said my part let me point you to the Scrum Guide available for free download from the Scrum Alliance website [update January 18, 2010 - the Scrum Alliance website now links to Scrum.org which hosts the Scrum Guide as published by Ken Schwaber, one of the original creators of Scrum].  In the Scrum Guide it states the ScrumMaster is one of three Scrum roles.  In addition it says:

The ScrumMaster is responsible for ensuring that the Team adheres to Scrum values, practices, and rules. The ScrumMaster helps the Scrum Team and the organization adopt Scrum. The ScrumMaster teaches the Team by coaching and by leading it to be more productive and produce higher quality products. The ScrumMaster helps the Team understand and use self-management and cross-functionality. However, the ScrumMaster does not manage the team; the team is self-managing.”

I think my description is in line with this definition.  Good thing since I’m a Certified Scrum Coach!

Until next time I’ll be Making Agile a Reality® by helping ScrumMasters recognize their full value to the team they help.

[Latest Guide] Ship faster because you know more, not because you are rushing. Get actionable insights from 7 million commits and 85,000+ software engineers, to increase your team's velocity. Brought to you in partnership with GitPrime.


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